Principles of Goal Setting
Goal setting is often missed in the workplace or it’s done really poorly just to tick a box. But as humans, we have an innate need to feel a sense of competence, autonomy and achievement.
As humans, we have an innate need to feel a sense of competence, autonomy and achievement.
If you’ve ever been around young children, you’ll know a two-year-old will say ‘I can do it, I can do it!’. And that’s a great example of the way that, as humans, we all want to be able to do it, we want to kick those goals. It’s really motivational. A lot of organisations tie their goalsetting into their performance review process. That’s perfectly fine, as long as you know how you’re setting the goals within that process.
Research by Locke and Latham has shown there’s a link between goal setting and performance in the workplace. They identified five principles for goal setting: commitment, clarity, challenge, complexity and feedback.
This refers to how attached we are to the goal, and how determined we are to reach it. When we’re less committed to goals, particularly more challenging goals, there’s an increased likelihood that we’ll give up. But when there’s a strong commitment, there’s a significant association between setting goals and performance.
A great way to encourage commitment is to have employees set their own goals. The manager can then review the goals and have a conversation with the employee before establishing that, yes, these are the right goals for this year.
Empowering employees to set their own goals helps with commitment. But we need to be aware that if an employee is new to the organisation, or they’re new to the goalsetting process, they may need support to come up with an initial draft.
You can support employees to set their own goals by encouraging them to use the SMART framework for goal setting:
This means that we need to set really specific goals. When a goal is vague, it has very limited motivational value. Just telling someone to ‘do your best’ is much less effective than saying I need you to hit 80 sales this week.
Goals are motivating when they’re clear, and they can be measured. Using the SMART framework or something similar really helps with this kind of specificity. So everyone knows exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve.
We are motivated by achievement and the anticipation of achievement. So our goals need to be challenging, but also attainable. Challenging goals improve performance through increased self-satisfaction, whereas goals that are not attainable just lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration.
If you are tying goals to incentives, you may find people are more cautious about setting goals. This reduces the challenge and therefore reduces the motivating power of goal setting.
I have worked with many businesses that have incentive and bonus structures in place where everyone just feels like the employees are just being paid money to do their normal job. And that really comes down to that goal setting process. If you’re not setting challenging goals, you’re missing the chance to motivate employees and drive your business forward.
Complex goals can become really overwhelming and negatively impact on morale, productivity, and motivation. If we’re asking people for things that are just too complex for their skill level, even the most highly motivated employees will become disillusioned.
That’s why the SMART framework includes ‘A’ for attainable. It’s there to make sure that the goal is not too complex. It’s still challenging, but it’s achievable.
Goal setting is more effective when there’s immediate feedback. That feedback needs to be clear, so employees know exactly what action to take if their performance falls below the standard needed. But it also needs to enable us to reflect upon our ability, and set new, more attainable, and challenging goals.
This is why the frequency of performance reviews is so important. If goals are set at the start of the year, and then we don’t talk about them again for 12 months, we’re not going to get enough feedback. Feedback held over until the next review is not going to create motivating goals.
Providing feedback, and asking for feedback from others, should be a continuing and regular process. Our employers should know immediately if they’re doing great work, or there are areas for improvement.
Outstanding feedback should be:
- Balanced Include both positive and negative comments. I worked with someone many years ago who only gave positive feedback. We learned to ignore this because it became meaningless. Provide a mix of praise and constructive feedback.
- Relevant Ensure the feedback is pertinent to what matters and what the employee has control over.
- Specific Avoid general statements like ‘you’re always late with that report’. Is it true the report is always late? Instead, comment on a specific incident.
- Tailored Provide feedback only to the individual who needs it. A common problem crops up when a manager says at a team meeting ‘I want to remind everybody, you need to do X, Y, and Z’ rather than discussing the issue with the employee who is not doing X, Y, and Z. The relevant person doesn’t realise the feedback is for them and ignores it. Meanwhile, everyone else thinks, ‘why is the manager involving us in this?’
- Followed up Let people know you’ve noticed when they’ve acted on the feedback. When you give somebody feedback, you’re not just aiming to improve performance but also to develop your employee. So let them know when you see improvement.